Saudi King Salman is currently on a three-week tour across six Asian countries. The duration of the trip underscores the commercial and geopolitical importance which Saudi Arabia attributes to Asia. It comes at a time when the kingdom is promoting Vision 2030—an ambitious agenda aimed at ending the country’s reliance on oil and creating a prosperous and sustainable knowledge-based economy—and seeking to strengthen its geopolitical influence across the Asia-Pacific region. While Riyadh assesses the Trump administration’s policies, it is hedging its bets on the future of its post-War alliance with the West by continuing the “Asia Pivot” initiated by King Abdullah in the mid-2000s.
Significantly, the first leg of the king’s Asia tour was in Malaysia, which no Saudi monarch had visited since 2006. While in Kuala Lumpur, King Salman sought to identify new markets for Saudi Arabia’s non-oil exports and secure more Malaysian investment in Vision 2030. The two governments signed several agreements to enhance bilateral cooperation in sectors including construction, aerospace, halal products, and hajj services. Most importantly, Aramco agreed to invest $7 billion in a Petronas refining and petrochemical project, marking the kingdom’s largest downstream investment outside of Saudi Arabia.
Symbolic, religious, and political dimensions contribute to Malaysia’s importance in Saudi Arabia’s grand vision for the Asia-Pacific region. Determined to extend influence among Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia, the kingdom sees Malaysia as having an important role to play in Saudi Arabia’s 41-member Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). To showcase unity in the struggle against terrorism, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia announced the King Salman Center for Global Peace (KSCGP) to “intensify and concert the Islamic world’s effort to confront extremism, reject sectarianism and to move the Islamic world toward a better future.” The center, which is set to launch later this year, will focus on the threat of international terrorism without associating it with “any race, color or religion.” The Intellectual Warfare Center at the Saudi Ministry of Defense and the Center for Security and Defense at the Malaysian Ministry of Defense will jointly set up the institution. The Malaysian University of Islamic Societies and the Jeddah-based Muslim World League will be stakeholders in KSCGP.
Beyond the diplomatic rhetoric, will Malaysia and Saudi Arabia step up cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts in a meaningful way? Given a host of lingering complications and confusion regarding Malaysia’s actual role in IMAFT at the alliance’s outset, it is not entirely clear how Kuala Lumpur will contribute to the Saudi-led alliance in the future.
When Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) announced IMAFT in late 2015, Malaysia was one of the original 34 participants, but at that time Kuala Lumpur denied having joined. Malaysian officials maintained that their country would not contribute to IMAFT militarily but would instead support it politically in order to strengthen international anti-terrorism efforts. Last February, however, Malaysia’s military participated in North Thunder (a joint exercise held in northern Saudi Arabia that included 19 IMAFT members), which perhaps suggested that Kuala Lumpur had reassessed its stance on IMAFT and had decided to fully support it. Malaysia’s military backing for the Riyadh-led coalition in Yemen—although mainly symbolic since all participating Malaysian forces have remained on Saudi soil and none has entered Yemen—has also further fueled speculation that it is considering a closer alliance with Saudi Arabia, either on a bilateral basis or within IMAFT’s framework.
Malaysia has always played a key role in Riyadh’s vision for a multinational force comprised of only Muslim nations. This is not a new idea. Back in 2011, when the kingdom began discussing such an alliance, Riyadh officials spoke to their counterparts in Kuala Lumpur about their grandiose plan. That year, Saudi Arabia’s then-national security advisor, Prince Bandar bin Sultan (BnS), raised recruits for the pan-Sunni Muslim force in Malaysia and planned to establish training bases in Central Asian states. At that time, BnS toured Malaysia, as well as Indonesia and Pakistan, and signed draft contracts with Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Islamabad to secure greater collaboration for a “rapid response force” to be based in each of these countries for deployment to any area of the Muslim world where a new terrorist threat might emerge.
Trans-Regional Terrorist Threats
Earlier this year, high-ranking Malaysian officials, along with their counterparts in other Southeast Asian governments, put their countries on alert in response to recent developments in the Levant. As the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) loses its grip on the Caliphate’s strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, several states in the Asia-Pacific are increasingly unsettled by the threat of IS members, especially Southeast Asians, relocating to Malaysia and other parts of the region.
Since 2013, several hundred Malaysians have joined IS in the Levant, and an estimated 60 are currently fighting with the group in Syria. Security officials in Malaysia have foiled 15 terror plots, which uncovered information about IS stockpiling of weapons and fundraising in the country, in addition to its plans to establish an Islamic State in Malaysia. Last year, authorities arrested 119 Malaysians—a notable increase from 85 and 59 in 2015 and 2014, respectively—on suspicions of terrorism.
Reports surfaced after the Saudi king’s visit that Malaysian authorities had arrested one Malaysian and six foreigners—four from Yemen, one from Indonesia, and one from an unidentified Southeast Asian country—based on their alleged affiliation with militant groups including IS. The Yemenis were apparently seeking to attack King Salman and his entourage. An anonymous Saudi source suggested that the Yemenis were Iranian-backed Houthis, rather than IS members. Although the facts surrounding this foiled plot remain a mystery to the public, the episode can only reinforce Saudi Arabia’s view of Malaysia as a country that has become vulnerable to international terrorist networks and thereby worthy of additional support from Riyadh.
Particularly troubling for Kuala Lumpur is the proven ability of IS to recruit Malaysians who serve in the country’s security apparatus, a problem that has persisted since al-Qaeda’s rise in the previous decade. That IS waged its first attack on Malaysian soil last summer, targeting a restaurant in the Puchong district outside of the capital, underscores how the organization can carry out its agenda in Malaysia through “lone wolf” attacks, which is extremely difficult for any government to address. From Riyadh’s perspective, the potential of IS and al-Qaeda to recruit more Southeast Asians is unsettling, given how many individuals from the Asia-Pacific region enter Saudi Arabia each year as low-skilled foreign workers or on pilgrimages.
It remains unclear to what extent the kingdom will be successful in its quest to deepen counter-terrorism cooperation with Malaysia either at the bilateral level or within the IMAFT’s framework. Many Southeast Asian Muslims have voiced concerns about the kingdom’s tactics for spreading influence in the region through its Wahhabi foundations and state-sponsored religious charities. As Muslim nations in the Asia-Pacific undergo an “Islamic revival,” various groups in the region argue that Saudi Arabia’s ultra-orthodox interpretation of the creed does not sit well with Malaysia and Indonesia’s Islamic traditions. Some Malaysians believe that they have lost touch with their national identity and risk falling victim to “Arab colonization.”
Although controversial, Wahhabism has a growing number of adherents in Malaysia. Strict Islamic law is already enforced in some capacity in the more conservative parts of the country, where, for example, religious authorities already check patrons’ religion in hotels and bars. The authorities can already jail those who do not practice official interpretations of the religion. Some members of Malaysia’s opposition party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, want Muslims convicted of drinking alcohol to receive up to 80 lashes of the rattan cane, and for adulterers to receive up to 100 lashes, echoing the punishment already dispensed in other Muslim countries, including Brunei and some parts of Indonesia. More than 86 percent of Malaysian Muslims support the imposition of Sharia law in their country, according to a 2013 survey.
The Iran Factor
Last October, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani travelled to Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, and delivered an address at the Asia Cooperation Dialogue Summit outlining Iran’s determination to promote its trade and investment relationships with the Asia Pacific region. As Malaysia and other countries in the region find themselves embroiled in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, they are increasingly finding the need to balance these two powers off each other in order to advance their own interests. Malaysia sees the lifting of sanctions on Iran as a promising opportunity to boost exports of its palm oil, timber, and rubber products to the country, which has an economy worth approximately $400 billion. Saudi Arabia is concerned that Malaysia and other ASEAN members will attribute so much potential value to doing business with Iran that they will resist the temptation to broaden their scope of relations with the kingdom.
King Salman and the Malaysian leadership issued a statement condemning Iran’s alleged meddling in foreign countries’ affairs, and Kuala Lumpur generally views Tehran through Riyadh’s lens. The angry response from the Iranian Foreign Ministry to Malaysia’s anti-Iranian statement underscores how Kuala Lumpur’s deepening ties with Riyadh and Tehran will complicate the country’s position in this geopolitical rivalry. It is a delicate balancing act that will probably result in Malaysia having to make difficult decisions about its allies, partners, and friends in the chaotic Middle East.
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